1,134 dead and more than 2,500 severely injured. Casualties of this scale are rare even in war these days, but this is the number of victims in the collapse of the eight-story “Rana Plaza” building in Savar, a town located 20 km northwest of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013. It is recorded as the world’s deadliest accident related to a single building collapse. The building was a commercial complex that contained garment factories, apartments, shops, and a bank.  

The vibrations of four large generators installed illegally on the upper floors, as well as of thousands of sewing machines operating in garment factories that were occupying the building, were identified as the cause. However, there was a more fundamental failure: the building’s fifth floor and up had been built illegally. Moreover, an employee found a crack in the wall the day before the collapse and reported it to the police, who then advised the managers to temporarily vacate the building while they conducted an inspection; the building owner and factory managers ignored this warning. Not only that, some of them threatened workers to show up the next morning or they might be fired. By the 28th of the same month, a total of 41 people, including these owners as well as the regulators, were arrested and charged with murder.

The accident revealed the extremely poor and dangerous working environment of garment factories in the country, which led to the establishment of an occupational health surveillance agency co-funded by global apparel companies such as Sweden’s H&M, the US’s Gap, and Spain’s Zara, who run factories in Bangladesh. These companies, through the agency, conducted on-site inspections together with the local fire departments. As a result, considerable improvements were made.

However, since April of this year, six years after the incident, the shut-down of the agency has been debated and concerns are being expressed one after another. Some people are worried that things will soon go back to what they were before the accident, or that the situation may get even worse. There seems to be multiple reasons for the shut-down debate, but the main one is likely political pressure from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporting Association (BGMEA), which has a strong influence on the national economy. The organization has been repeatedly filing lawsuits against the agency claiming that the agency’s activities obstruct business, thus pushing for the withdrawal of such international interference. Apparently, the government is not very committed to improving the working environment either, because it insists that the country is fine without the presence of the surveillance agency.

In Bangladesh, the apparel manufacturing business subcontracted by western companies has reached $31 billion and become the country's main income source through foreign trade. This business is driven by extremely low labor costs; for example, the minimum wage for garment factory workers is $95 per month (less than 10,000 yen). Bangladesh undertakes manufacturing for various apparel brands by selling its cheap labor. Maintaining the low cost to attract business is prioritized over everything else – including occupational safety. This is evidenced by the endless factory incidents which have killed more than 100 people, even after the occupational health surveillance agency was introduced post-Rana Plaza incident.

Some say that if consumer attitude changes, the situation could change as well. They argue that we should shift from the so-called fast fashion (mass-production of disposable clothing) to one-of-a-kind craftsmanship and recycled clothing. The latter is certainly more sustainable in terms of resource consumption, and in the long run, there will be more consumers who would enjoy expressing their own style without following any brand. However, improving the working environment of these factory workers is the more imperative issue right now.

If you can buy what you want at a low price, this is simply because someone else produces it at low wages. Isn't this how capitalism has always worked? At the national level, however, there’s a way to improve the system. One way is to raise taxes imposed on factory managers and apparel companies who have long been exploiting the Bangladeshi laborers, and then investing the collected money to improve the labor environment. Exposing workers to a dangerous work environment is a form of enslavement. Legal frameworks can also be improved by expanding the scope of prohibited imports, that is, by banning not only the products manufactured by prisoners and forced labor but also products that do not meet certain labor standards.

Some may argue that even though safety is important, imprudent investments in facility and wages may cause inflation and halt economic growth. Well, we would like to note that raising wages is not the only approach to improve a worker’s environment. The experience of Japan's textile industry in the 1960s is a good example.

The 1960s was the robust period of post-war reconstruction and rapid economic growth in Japan, but the wage standard was considerably lower compared to the US and other countries. Japan thus attracted foreign businesses with its cheap labor; for example, blouses were exported in large quantities and sold for one US dollar each. The exchange rate at that time was fixed to 360 yen per US dollar, meaning that Japanese yen was depreciated, which boosted Japan’s export industry.

Were there complaints among factory workers who were hired at low wages? It is unlikely that there was none. However, it is also true that many business owners in Japan worked hard to improve work conditions other than wages. They offered company housing and established corporate sports clubs in an effort to improve not just the workplace, but the work environment in totality. Of course, it was a costly investment, but these business owners believed that a good company would attract good employees, and that it may even be deemed economical in a long run if the value of good reputation (borne by the good performance of good employees) were  converted to advertising costs. This is the exact opposite of the Bangladeshi managers’ approach.

In fact, apart from accidents such as coal mine crashes or railway accidents, no large-scale occupational accident was recorded in Japan during that time. Many have pointed out that the underlying philosophy that exists since the samurai era played a role in shaping the unique management philosophy in Japan, in which managers consider their employees as corporate family members.

It is not possible nor appropriate to imitate a country’s experience because each country has its own history and culture, but it is certainly valuable to learn from another country’s experiences in order to build one’s own rules. In addition, everything crosses borders nowadays: people, goods, funds, and information. Labor values can, and should, also become borderless.

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